Happy 125th Birthday: Chicago "L"


At 40th looking east at Indiana Ave. in 1892, the Alley "L" (Source CTA)

The Chicago "L" celebrates its 125th birthday Tues., June 6, when the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) will be running a 1923 train around the Loop from about noon to 1:30 p.m., followed by a late 1970s train for another 90 minutes. 


Harrison Curve in 1892 (Source CTA)

Plans to raise transportation out of the fray of carts, horses, streetcars, people and filth began in 1883 when "State Senator George E. Adams sponsored legislation that required elevated rail companies to receive permission of two-thirds of the property owners along each mile of the line in order to build. Consent was negotiated through bribes with the local property owners.

"This prohibitively expensive practice was bypassed to some extent by building the "L" in the alley.*" 

With wooden cars and a stack belching smoke and cinders from the coal powered steam engine, "Alley L" made its first run in June 1892 from Congress Parkway and State Street to 39th Street, along the alley, behind and around buildings and through backyards, according to Graham Garfield, CTA general manager of customer information and unofficial agency historian. 


Shot in 1896, this is a South Shore Line photo from Bruce Moffat in "The Chicago 'L'"

Owned by the Chicago and South Side Rapid Transit Railroad Co., it is now known as the Green Line. 

This mechanical conveyance for travelers became more than a transporter of people, it became a community space where the gentry and the working class rubbed shoulders, explains Greg Borzo author of The Chicago "L." 

"That was an unintended social democratic occurrence that forced different income levels, races and ethnic groups to sit together." 

Owned by the Chicago and South Side Rapid Transit Railroad Co., it operated for six years with steam before converting to third-rail electric power, says Borzo. It is now the route of the Green Line. 

The Metropolitan West Side Elevated Railroad also was incorporated in 1892 and created a special drawbridge to allow the train to go from Wells over the Chicago River South Branch to Marshfield between Ashland and Wood. 


On "L" tracks running parallel with North Ave., train heads to Humboldt Park***

The "Met" or "Polly" ran four lines, the first station opened at Damen in 1895, extending west to Logan Square by the end of that year. Another went from Damen to Humboldt Park, running just north of North Ave. 

Created by state legislation in 1947,  the CTA acquired many transportation rail  and bus companies and became one entity in 1947.  

Today, in the City and suburbs, the CTA has eight rail lines with 145 stations and 130 bus lines with 1,888 buses. Over all they cover 224.1 miles, providing services to 1.7 million riders daily. 

*Riders can board at any Loop station, and regular fares apply, according to the CTA.

**John Scheidelman wrote in Wicker Park From 1673 Thru 1929 and Walking Tour Guide

***A Chicago History Museum photo from the Wicker Park history book



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